Get To Know: Tove Styrke
Photo: Emma Svensson
It's kind of ridiculous that at only twenty-five Swedish singer and songwriter Tove Styrke has nine years of industry experience and, come 4th May this year, three albums under her belt, but here she is! Since winning third place on Swedish Idol back in 2009, she's been steadily finding her voice and growing in self-assuredness, first with the release of her self-titled debut, and then with 2015's Kiddo. The person she is now, just a couple of months before the release of her third studio album Sway, is very different from the person she was when she first started, and so is the industry. We caught up with Tove to talk about her growth as an artist, what makes the perfect pop record, and the importance of bringing as many women as possible into her team.
Hi Tove! I can't believe Kiddo was released in 2015 - that feels like so long ago! How much do you feel you’ve changed in the time since Kiddo’s release, and does it affect how you feel about it as a piece of work?
Yes! Especially as I write my own stuff, so sometimes I’m shocked that I ever thought certain lyrics were good. But when I look back I do still love all of my own songs -even from the album before Kiddo, and I was sixteen when I wrote that! I feel like it’s the same with tattoos. If you get one, you have to be able to like the person you were when you got it.
Do you have any tattoos that you feel like that about?
Yeah I have this heart - it’s really poorly executed, but it’s still charming to me, because I still respect my sixteen-year-old self. I feel the same way about those old songs. I look at some from my first album and think ‘okay that’s not even grammatically possible’ and I have a few of those even on the second one. But I still love the person I was when I made those little mistakes.
How do you feel about the new record in comparison?
I’m super excited to release it because I’ve been working on it for so long - I’ve been in the studio for two years. In terms of the songwriting, I feel like I’ve found my voice. I’m focusing a lot more on my strengths, and I trust myself more. I’m way more confident in my own ability this time around.
What kinds of strengths have you uncovered?
I’m really good at finding interesting melodies for my own voice. I think a lot of people can write really great melodies for anybody, but only I can come up with quirky melodies that are specifically mine.
I was thinking recently about Lorde’s ability to do that too - to find a sound that’s so hers - and then on the same day come across your ‘Liability’ cover!
I think there are very few people that write pop lyrics that you can actually read. Her lyrics are beautiful with or without the music. That song in particular, I feel like it’s about me - that’s why so many people like it, right? That’s to me when the magic happens - when everybody can listen to the same song and feel the same emotion. That’s what great pop music does. It finds a shortcut to people’s emotions and punches you right in the gut.
Is that how you imagine the perfect song to work?
It’s supposed to be simple, it’s supposed to be direct. That’s the biggest challenge to me, but it’s also what’s most fun. To boil it down to precisely what needs to be said to translate that emotion.
What does it feel like in the studio when you finally feel like you’ve distilled what you’re trying to say - when it clicks?
I just know. Until it’s done it feels like there’s a little itch in my brain - I haven’t found exactly what I want to say. But when I find the perfect sentence or the perfect solution - maybe I have to switch all the parts around and make the pre the bridge or whatever - when it’s done, I know. It just feels right.
Do you get the same feeling when you listen to music that isn’t your own?
Yes! But that feeling could be inspired by anything. It can be something someone does with her voice - someone showed me Nastasia the other day - she has the weirdest, most wonderful voice. Her melodies work so well with her voice, there’s something really special and different about it that I like. And then there’s SZA. Ctrl is one of the few albums I feel like I can just sit and do nothing else and just appreciate it. I mean, ‘picking up a penny with a press on is easier than pinning you down’? Nobody ever said it like that before! It’s so vivid.
What else are you listening to now?
I love Kehlani, and I’m obsessed with Cardi B. Mainly pop music I think - that’s what really speaks to me. Pop music is very interesting today - it’s not totally restricted to just these big pop anthems. There are lots of smaller, less assuming pop tracks, like Kehlani’s ‘Honey’ for example - that’s a pop song, but it’s super chill, the lyrics are really smart. There’s so much to choose from now in the pop world.
You’ve been in the music industry for nine years - that’s such a long time for someone who’s only twenty-five! Has it been difficult to navigate as a young woman?
It’s changed a lot! One thing that’s really changed is that until pretty recently I’ve always had to explain to people that I write my own material. Everybody would always assume that someone else had given it to me. I had to make that clear in interviews even when I was promoting Kiddo. I don’t ever have to do that now. There are so many brilliant female artists who write for themselves now like my friend Noonie Bao and Julia Michaels - I mean how many huge songs has she written?
Maybe that has something to do with social media? Now we can see artists like Charli XCX actually in the studio writing…
Yeah, she’s another genius! I’m so much more in control now - I can just show people what I’m doing. People can see that I’m in the studio, or hear me talking about a song I’m working on. It’s much more clear now that that’s what I do.
Would you ever consider writing for other people like Charli does?
I can’t! I’m too much of a control freak. I’ve tried, but if you write for somebody else at the end of that day they have to decide how they want to do it, and I don’t like letting go of things. I can imagine if I wrote a song and decided not to use it then I could give it to somebody else, but making something specifically to give it away - I can’t do it. It would be cool to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and write from their perspective but I just… I write for me.
Have you always had positive experiences in studios?
Everyone I’ve ever worked with has been really receptive to my ideas in the studio. I don’t know whether it’s a Swedish thing, but I’ve always felt very comfortable and at home in a studio situation. But something that’s changed as I’ve grown in my career is that now I have the opportunity to bring women into the studio with me. It’s more difficult with producers because there are still very few women, but I can always bring in another female top-liner if I want to. I can create my own balanced work environment.
One area in which I really have to trust another person is with visuals and videos. I’m not a photographer, I’m not a director, I have to trust somebody else to really understand what I want to express, and then let them do it.
Your videos for this album cycle have had a really consistent aesthetic…
I really like to work with women on my visuals - a female photographer, a female director. I’ve found the best person in the world Joanna Nordahl. She made the ‘Mistakes’ video - she’s the Creative Director of my whole project. We work together. There are certain things that Joanna has a specific understanding of, she gets my references. No man would have come up with the ending to the ‘Mistakes’ video, but Joanna and I live in the same world, we have the same language for what we want to express. That’s been very meaningful for me.
Last thing - who do you want to shout out?
Check out Cherry, Mabel, Billie Eilish, Nastasia… they’re all amazing!
Thanks so much Tove!
Follow Tove on Twitter at @tovestyrke